The Stories We Tell Ourselves (a Few Myths of P2)

At Dialogue Partners we bring people together to create momentum for positive change. We are passionate about conversations that matter and building capacity to work together.

But…we know that sometimes change is hard, and it can be easier to do what you know, even if it isn’t working, than to question your assumptions about how and what you are doing so that you can learn, grow and adapt. In the journey of change, we hear a lot of things about public engagement, and some of them are stories we tell ourselves that don’t necessarily serve us well. We thought we’d highlight a few of those myths here. We encourage you to spend some time thinking about your public engagement assumptions too.

We’d like to give a shout out to our friends at Involve in the UK. They recently produced a pamphlet called “From Fairy Tale to Reality” where they look at 5 myths of public involvement. The 5 myths they address are different than the ones we focus on here, so we’d encourage you to read those too. You can find the document here.

1. People need something to react to.

This statement came out of the mouth of a fellow IAP2 Certificate in Public Participation trainer recently, and we’re sorry to say it made us cringe.

  •  Is a reaction what you are looking for?
  • Is solving the problem for people and asking them to comment on it likely to get you positive or negative responses?
  • What might happen if we took a situation or issue, and said instead, “Here is what WE see, understand, and hope for”?
  • What if we then said to people “What do YOU see, understand and hope for?”
  • What if you took the time to build something better together WITH people that considered their needs AND also yours?
  • Isn’t that the foundation of a meaningful exchange and the essence of democracy?
  • What would happen if you framed the conversation in such a way that it reflected your values, as well as theirs, and created the space to really dig into the nuances, options and impacts?

This approach to engagement is far different than solving the problem, developing a proposed solution (or series of options) and asking people to react to them. What you get when you do that are critiques, opposition and reactions. We aren’t saying you don’t need to take the time to make sure people have all the information so they can have an informed discussion, and we aren’t saying that you should ask people to be experts in technical issues they don’t have any background in. We are saying we’re in this together – that your technical expertise and information, combined with their experience of their own lives and values put together are equally important. You’ll get a better, more creative, long-lasting decision if you create it together, instead of creating it and asking for their reaction.

We recently got this email from a participant: I decided that the one person I wanted most to thank was you. Of everyone I met, you seemed the most ready to push the boundaries of citizen engagement, and I like that very much. As a citizen who shows up for issues I care about, I feel that most venues do not welcome “the voice of the people”. You posed the key question very nicely: “How do we collectively create a better democracy? That is my reason behind my decision to join IAP2.” This comment sums up for us the kinds of conversation and experience that is meaningful for participants and citizens.

2. “Really important people” don’t have time for a conversation about the public engagement process.

This myth speaks to the weight we place on the value of certain people, versus the value we place on others. We have heard many times that “really important people” (usually characterized as senior management or elected officials) don’t have time to talk about the process – that they are focused on results. We hear that time and money spent on conversations and engagement process is viewed as light and fluffy, or in the recent words of a Canadian Member of Parliament “a talkfest”.

Some community members seem even after the process is tweaked and the issues reframed that they do not buy-in to your process. They still will be against it because the hard work was never undertaken to understand their values.

Some community members seem even after the process is tweaked and the issues reframed that they do not buy-in to your process. They still will be against it because the hard work was never undertaken to understand their values.

We know from experience that hard decisions on complex issues won’t get made in sustainable supported ways unless organizations and leaders take the time for the “talkfest” that gets all the issues, possibilities, consequences and suggestions on the table. Just take a look at Keystone, Gateway, treaty negotiations, climate change or any other complex and controversial issue.

If you take the time for the conversation, the possibility will emerge that you can find a path forward that works for everyone. If you don’t take the time for the conversation, you can spend lots of money trying to convince people after the fact of the value of your approach, with limited success. The time and money spent on meaningful process that gets results is worth the effort, attention and commitment of leaders.

3. Some people just really like to say “No”

We recently listened to a speech given by a Stakeholder Engagement Manager for a large oil company who was experiencing significant community opposition to a project. She summed up the conclusion of her experience by noting that “some people just really like to say no.” That dismissive view of stakeholders and the public, and the characterization of their views as negative and designed to create obstacles is overly simplistic, but fairly common.

People say no for a reason, because a boundary has been crossed for them, because something they value and hold dear is being impacted and they seek to protect it. People are motivated by many of the same things – love of family, community, environment, hope for a better future. Understanding these things at a deep level, and working together with community members presents an enormous opportunity to address their needs AND yours to create a better solution and to potentially gain the social license to operate. Dismissing their perspectives creates the space for an adversarial relationship and invites opposition. That approach isn’t good sense for your reputation, or your project.

The social media landscape is crowded, however facebook and twitter recieve the greatest attention.

The social media landscape is crowded, however facebook and twitter recieve the greatest attention.

4. Tweeting is public engagement

Social media is an integral part of today’s society, and participants who are active on social media share interesting opinions, ideas and positions. Social media outreach is an important part of any public engagement process in sharing information, encouraging participation and increasing outreach.

Ottawa's Mayor Jim Watson got into a twitter spat for blocking certain followers.

Ottawa's Mayor Jim Watson got into a twitter spat for blocking certain followers.

However, meaningful engagement and conversation takes more than 140 characters.

Getting to pros, cons, trade-offs and developing sustainable solutions isn’t done in a series of opinions. We’ve seen lots of elected officials engage community through twitter, get a fast flurry of responses and deem they’ve taken the pulse of the community. We heard a Mayor announce this on the radio just last week – that he was tweeting so knew what people thought about a highly controversial issue. Not really. What they have done is heard from those who are active social media users, who are following the issue or individual, and who take a moment to provide a short view or opinion. You didn’t hear from those not on social media, a broad cross-section of community or have an opportunity to understand at a deep level WHY those opinions matter to people. We think it is important to engage and be active on social media. Those views and voices are a critical component of any conversation – but they don’t reflect all voices.

We applaud elected officials and organizations that create a space for two-way interaction in this forum. We just want to caution that this isn’t the whole conversation, and it isn’t a very deep one.

5. If you are clear about “expectations” everything will be fine

We teach the IAP2 Certificate in Public Participation, and we teach advanced course in the field as well. We believe a meaningful engagement process creates an opportunity to be straight with participants about constraints, givens, challenges and limitations. It is important to clarify what is in your control and what is not. However, we have seen many times that what organizations and students in training take from this idea is that if they identify what they are not prepared to talk about or share influence or decision on and clearly communicate this to participants, that this will be accepted and everyone can move on and talk about the issues that are open for input.

The challenge with this thinking and presentation is that just because you have identified that the item is not in your control, or you are unable to allow for influence, or there are reasons why you are not prepared to engage on the item does not necessarily mean that this is acceptable to your participants, matches their desires, values or needs.

If your participants want to talk about an issue – and you don’t – you are going to talk about their issue until they are satisfied and ready to talk about your issue. There is an illusion of control in the suggestion that being clear about expectations means that people will accept those expectations. They might accept them if they meet their needs, values and motivations for participation. But if they don’t agree then they will want to talk about the issue, although you can always tell them no. That doesn’t mean they will hear you or stop talking about it. Just because you were clear about your expectations doesn’t mean you can tell other people what their expectations should be.

There is a give and take to meaningful engagement that requires complete transparency and openness, and if there is an issue not on the table for discussion – from your perspective – be prepared to spend the time on why, how and what led you to that conclusion. And be prepared to learn and understand what others think about that.

6. This issue is way too complex for the public to get their heads around

There is a fairly frequent assumption among people who are highly skilled technical experts that some things are too complicated for those who are not experts to converse about. This assumption seems to be grounded in the belief that people would need to be experts in order to have a meaningful discussion. We don’t think there is a lot of value in this approach – if we’re talking about nuclear waste does it mean we’ll need to make nuclear or environmental scientists out of all our participants? If we’re talking about wind energy, City budgets, blood borne diseases or school closures will need to first educate participants and community members to be engineers, accountants, scientists and educators? We don’t think so. We think the technical experts bring those technical skills and knowledge, and we rely on the depth and breadth of their understanding.

What we are asking for from people is how these complex issues impact their lives, their experiences and values, their hopes, needs and concerns. We’re asking them to be experts in their own lives.

We need to take that complex information and break it into meaningful “chunks” of information so there is an understanding of the background, the impacts, consequences, considerations and discuss together potential paths forward. We don’t need to create a new bunch of engineers or nuclear scientists but instead we need participants to bring us the part of the equation technical experts don’t have – the lived experience, knowledge of community, people and values. Our job is to put the two together.

We know it can be done – we’ve done it for countless complex issues. All you need is a will to create a space where everyone is an expert in the conversation, and where all voices are valued.

7. We can’t change the light rail route so let’s get their input on station design (and other stories of channelling people to engage on issues they don’t really care about)

Western LRT route in Ottawa and mock up of a station.

This myth relates directly to #5 where it seems being clear on expectations will make everything OK. It is important to consider what is on the table for influence and discussion (from your perspective) and what is not – and why that is the case. It is important to understand the same from your community or stakeholder’s perspective too. But just because you don’t have an opportunity to involve them in the thing they really, deeply, passionately want to talk about (for example the light rail route) doesn’t mean you should then find something you don’t think is that important and offer it to them for input as if they will pick it up and see it as important (for example murals in the light rail station).

What they will likely see it as is condescending, disingenuous, demeaning and smelling of token engagement. When people care, they care. This doesn’t mean they are always going to want to talk about what you want to talk about. Be clear, open and honest about the situation, but don’t give them the things you deem as less important and think they’ll be happy for the opportunity. More projects than we can count have gone wrong from this approach. Don’t consult over station design, art work or landscaping if want they want to talk about is route.

8. Anyone can do P2

Turns out lots and lots of people SAY they can do P2. Public engagement and stakeholder relations has become the flavour of the month, year and decade for communications professionals, public relations folks and engineers and environmental consulting firms. Everyone says they can do P2.

The question you might want to ask is can they do it well? Can they do it in a way that builds trust, ownership, relationships and/or social license to operate? Can they support you and your participants to move forward together on complex issues? Do they have a track record and experience at all levels of the spectrum on multiple issues with multiple people? Are they ethical and with integrity?

We recently had a client tell us they hire the big (name deleted) engineering and environmental firms for their work on technical issues, but they’ve learned the hard way that they make a mess of relationships and trust, and don’t know what they are doing when it comes to community engagement. They’ve stopped hiring those firms. We’re not saying that just because you are a big environmental firm you can’t do community engagement. We are saying people can’t be experts in everything, and because community conversations are “soft” sometimes people think they’re easy. Anyone can check the box for you. Not very many people can actually get results, outcomes and better relationships.

Steph Roy McCallum